Wonder Woman: The Weird, True Story

Wonder Woman is TM and © DC Comics
The cover of the July–August 1951 issue of Wonder Woman, by Irv Novick

In 1978, David Levine drew the birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger wearing a leotard with stars below the waist, bouncing confidently off what looked at first like a trampoline. On second glance it was a springy contraceptive diaphragm. Of course: Sanger as Wonder Woman. (See illustration below.)

The choice of imagery was obvious. Many decades earlier, Sanger had argued that women should be taught about sex, its pleasures and consequences, and given the information and medical support they needed to determine their destinies as mothers (or as not-mothers, should they so choose). In cofounding America’s first birth control clinic in Brooklyn in 1916, Sanger launched a movement that would eventually complete the job of making contraception and reproductive medicine available in the United States and much of the world (even if rearguard legislative actions today keep the descendant of that early clinic, the now venerable Planned Parenthood, fighting to stay viable in America’s red states).

Wonder Woman was one of only a few symbols of womanhood who could be considered strong enough to win so big a battle. And she was enjoying a revival in the 1970s. In 1972, Gloria Steinem and the cofounders of Ms. magazine picked Wonder Woman to be the cover girl of its first issue. Ms. even helped publish a book, a culling of feminist-friendly story lines, that for decades was a much-used compilation of the comic’s early years. In the introduction, Steinem recalled the thrill she felt encountering at the age of eight this stunning, buff Amazon princess, flying by invisible airplane from her sheltered island to help America in World War II: “Looking back now at these Wonder Woman stories from the ’40s, I am amazed by the strength of their feminist message.”

It’s Jill Lepore’s contention in The Secret History of Wonder Woman that in looking back to the original Wonder Woman for a model, Steinem and her cofounders were on to more than a commercial hook. The superheroine, Lepore argues, has all along been a kind of “missing link” in American feminism—an imperfect but undeniable bridge between vastly distinct generations. Hiding in her kitschy story lines and scant costume were allusions to and visual tropes from old struggles for women’s freedom, and an occasional framing of battles like the right to a living wage and basic equality that have yet to be decisively won.

Wonder Woman stories showed women shackled in endless yards of ropes and chains—a constant theme in art from decades earlier demanding the right to vote. The traditional allegory of an island of Amazon princesses appears in feminist science fiction early in the twentieth century; the rhetoric of a nurturing, morally evolved strongwoman opposed to the war god Mars goes back even further. At the same…

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